Gulf braces for power shortages

Growth in energy consumption fuelled by state subsidies

Underneath the lamplight: a shopkeeper serves his customers utilising battery-powered light following a power outage in Sharjah. Farhad Berahman / AP Photo
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The big heat has come early to the Gulf, and residents opting to stay are settling in for another summer of discontent punctuated by power cuts. All Gulf states except Qatar face electricity shortages that intensify during the airconditioning season. Already this year, the emirate of Sharjah as well as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have suffered disruptions.

On May 10, a 90-minute power cut grounded flights at King Abdul Aziz International Airport near Jeddah. Last month, a series of electricity disruptions afflicted cities in the north and west of Saudi Arabia, including Mecca, Medina, Jeddah and Taif, amid temperatures reaching 52°C. Some schoolchildren taking exams passed out from the heat. "The residents are fed up with the repeated power cuts that have been causing moral distress and material losses," said Mohammed al Qahtani, a Saudi national who walked barefoot on an electricity wire during a power cut to publicise the problem.

In southern Iraq, where most residents receive only a few hours of electricity a day from the national grid, violent public protests over shoddy power services left two people dead last month and prompted the resignation of the nation's electricity minister. Iraq is a special case as its power network was all but destroyed by war and misrule. In the rest of the Gulf, electricity shortages are attributable to rapid industrialisation and population growth. Governments in the region are planning big expansions in power generation capacity and are also urging energy conservation.

New power stations will certainly be built, but energy conservation is unlikely to gain much purchase, experts say. "Prospects for a wide-reaching adoption of sustainability standards in society and the private sector are dim," Steffen Hertog and Giacomo Luciani argued in a recent London School of Economics (LSE) study of energy and sustainability policies in the GCC. Paying more for better designed but smaller dwellings probably ran "counter to the ingrained preferences of the vast majority of the public", they said in the study funded by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science.

So far in the Gulf, "green" building codes exist only in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Qatar has announced plans to create "a sustainable built environment". Prof Hertog, who lectures on political economy at the University of Durham in the UK, and Mr Luciani, the director of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre Foundation, consider poor design and construction of buildings as part of the price GCC countries have paid for rapid urban expansion. "The need to choose between speed and quality of growth is ubiquitous. So far, with the exception of industrial investment, the preference for cost minimisation has almost always prevailed," they said.

Karim Elgendy, an architect and sustainable design researcher based in San Francisco, also believes the style of architecture has played a role. "Rapid urbanisation in the UAE, as well as in other GCC member states, has been characterised by forms of imported western architecture which were not environmentally responsive to the region's climatic conditions," he said. "High-rise buildings with large areas of glass facade, and huge demand for electricity for air conditioning can be seen in all new urban centres such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as other cities such as Riyadh and Doha."

The region's low domestic energy prices are another problem because they discourage conservation and preferentially attract energy-intensive industries. "On top of large and badly insulated homes, the region is characterised by wasteful consumer habits, with ambient temperature kept exceedingly low, abundant illumination based primarily on traditional incandescent bulbs, and unrestrained running of appliances," the LSE study found.

Attracting industries such as aluminium smelting and steel refining, which consume large amounts of electricity, has been economic policy in some GCC states. Minimal taxes and low energy costs have done the job. But this discourages governments from raising electricity rates to anywhere close to the prices charged in developed economies. "The energy-intensive industries would fear for their competitive advantage and act as a powerful lobby group against any policies making their business less competitive," said Danyel Reiche, an energy policy researcher at the American University of Beirut.

As for the effectiveness of the UAE's sustainable-building codes? "The jury is still out," said the LSE researchers.